Q&A Manya Shorr: New library director working for the future

Manya Shorr

Manya Shorr’s love for books began as she was growing up an only child in Pasadena, California. In fact, her part-time job while in high school was as a page at the Huntington Library in the rare book collection, which was restricted to researchers.

Shorr respected those books greatly, something she continues to do today, recognizing the difference reading makes in a society. Her love of all things reading and learning led her to the position of director of the Fort Worth Library.

She succeeded Gleniece Robinson, who retired last year after serving in the capacity since 1999.

Since September 2014, Shorr had been director of public services for the D.C. Public Library in the nation’s capital, where she managed all aspects of public service delivery and was responsible for the experience offered in 25 branches and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. She managed the programs and partnership and collections departments and was part of a budget team that decided all library spending.

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Previously, she had held supervisory positions at the Omaha Public Library and the Sacramento Public Library, and worked at the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon.

Now, well into her first year on the job, Shorr spoke with the Fort Worth Business Press about why she came to Fort Worth, her goals, the challenges of encouraging reading in today’s society, and more. She will speak to the Downtown Rotary at the Fort Worth Club at noon on May 18.

Why were you attracted to the job in Fort Worth?

There were many things about both the city and the library system that appealed to me. I was interested in a system that was smaller than the D.C. Public Library, where I was responsible for over 400 staff and I missed knowing everyone’s name. I like my workplace to feel like a family, and it is difficult to do that after a certain scale.

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I am intrigued by Fort Worth because of the growth the city has been experiencing. I know that as people move here, they will have expectations of the Fort Worth Public Library based on their prior library experiences in other cities. I’m glad that the community and the city has made a financial commitment to library growth, and because I have experience designing and building libraries, I am excited to contribute to that here.

Fort Worth is a stable city, and that is attractive to me. I know I have very big shoes to fill, but I’m thrilled to follow someone who has done so much good for the community. Many cities are experiencing growth and changes, especially in urban centers. I admire the commitment the city has made to neighborhoods like Stop Six and I know the library can and will be an integral part of neighborhood revitalization and preservation.

What is your vision for the Fort Worth library system as its director?

The library is the public living room of every community. It, along with parks, is the only voluntary public space that exists in a city. For that reason, the public library is the place that people of all walks of life come together under the umbrella of community. This is powerful because it means the library has an opportunity to play a pivotal role in facilitating the conversation around what a community wants to be.

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Fort Worth is committed to better educating children and ensuring that every child reads on grade level by the third grade. The library serves kids when they’re not in school and is the perfect institution to show kids that reading for pleasure will make them lifelong readers. In many neighborhoods, the library is the place where kids and adults access the internet. It’s not true yet that everyone has internet at home or can afford a computer. The library is still the place that helps bridge the digital divide.

My vision for the Fort Worth Public Library is to one day have everyone in Fort Worth using their library in some way. We need to be open the hours that people want, have as many resources available online and accessible 24/7, and continue to be the place for delight and discovery.

In this age of everything being at our fingertips, why do you think libraries are still needed and used?

This is an interesting question and one I’m asked often. Libraries are now and have always been about so much more than just information. The public library is the civic commons in every community. Think about it — where can people go to learn, explore, be around people different than them, be challenged, be safe, and do it all for free? The American public library has been around for over 200 years, and for all of that time they have been public gathering places. Books come and go, computers come and go, but the public library will always be a place for people to come together and figure out what their community means to them.

It’s always funny to me when I’m asked why libraries are still around in the age of the internet. The nonpartisan Pew Research Center spent about a decade surveying people across the country about how they feel about and use their public library. The results were clear. People love the library. They use it for the obvious things – books and access to the internet – but interestingly enough, people see the library as vital to the health of their community. There are even studies that show that proximity to a public library can raise property values, and the latest Pew study showed that millennials are the most likely generation to use the public library. If any of your readers haven’t been in a library lately, I invite them to visit. It’s probably not what they think.

What did you know about Fort Worth and Texas before taking the job?

Very little. I certainly knew that Texas is a behemoth of a state and that many of the largest cities in the country are here. But I did not know Dr. [Gleniece] Robinson or Fort Worth. And truth be told, I wasn’t looking to leave D.C. Public Library. But the team at [the search firm] MacKenzie Eason was so enthusiastic about Fort Worth, and everyone was committed to the library, and that’s what convinced me that this was the best city for me and my family. In any city, no one hates the library. We are one of those institutions that people value. But it’s rare to find a city full of library champions and that’s what I have experienced here in Fort Worth and that’s very exciting.

Any additional thoughts?

I grew up going to the public library, first with my dad and then on my own. I know the value a library can bring to a city and to people’s lives. I agree wholeheartedly with the American Library Association when they say that libraries transform.